What’s on your culinary bookshelf? Lately I’ve spent less time creating recipes and more time with my nose stuck between the pages of dictionaries, manuals, science articles and everything I can get my hands on that relates to food. Lucky for me, the Indianapolis Public Library has a wealth of cookbooks with everything from food biographies to canning and preserving, baking, Mediterranean, Italian, Asian, Slovakian, traditional, Southern… you name it, they have it.
Here’s a glimpse into the books that have inspired me lately, and each one can be found at the Indianapolis Public Library (except right now, because I have them all. Insert evil laugh here).
What’s interesting to me is how long it has taken for me to find these books. Some of them are classics, found on every shelf in every home of chefs across the world, while others aren’t but serve a different purpose to me.
Shall we begin?
Modernist Cuisine At Home by Natahn Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet
Here’s where I admit slight embarrasment. I did not know of this book until I saw it at the library and picked it up on a whim. Now, I probably would have heard or found it eventually, but the oversized book was sitting at the bottom of the shelf, just waiting for me to open it up and go through page after page.
This book is an encyclopedia for contemporary cooking – think sous vide, pressure cooking and the whipping siphon. What’s amazing are the beautiful, full-page color photographs that break apart each and every ingredient. While it is full of recipes, this book goes beyond the ingredients list and directions. Instead, you are prompted to ask WHY food should be cooked to a certain temperature and HOW different methods can change one ingredient several ways. My experiment in 72 Hour Short Ribs was inspired in part by this book.
Don’t let the scientific stuff turn you off. In this book are recipes for baked macaroni and cheese, crispy chicken wings, salad dressings and hundreds of dishes you are probably already making at home. What’s different is that Modernist Cuisine At Home changes the way you think about the ordinary.
Modernist Cuisine At Home is a summarized version of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, a five book anthology on everything you could possibly think about when it comes to food. Both, in my opinion, are accessible to home cooks, though the “at home” version is written to be applied by home cooks. It is stated that the book is probably 1/3 accessible without the technology mentioned (sous vide, for example) and fully if the technology is available. It’s just another reason why I highly suggest purchasing a sous vide machine.
And yes, both the at home version at the full version are worth the price.
Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn
I own this book, but it happens to be available at my local library and I’ve found myself picking it up more lately. Whether you have any interest in dry curing your own meat or not, this book is a valuable resource.
Pancetta. Guanciale. Coppa. Do you know what makes each one of these different from the other? Each dry cured meat comes from a different part of the animal, and this book explains why that is and how that came to be, complete with illustrations. Written by one of my favorite food authors, Michael Ruhlman, Salumi discusses how to break down a whole hog by yourself, which is totally something YOU can do! Yes, you! And me! Meat lovers will enjoy reading about all of the salumi – which means dry cured Italian meats, while salami means dry cured sausages – and the recipes that teach you not just how to make them, but how to incorporate them into your meals.
What happens when someone is raised by a Korean family in the heart of Brooklyn, then later moves to Louisville? Korean and American soul food, combined.
Chef Edward Lee, a multiple James Beard Award nominee, challenges your idea of Southern soul food with things like Kimchi Poutine. Complete with explanations on Asian ingredients you may have never heard of, this cookbook brings so many creative ideas to your dinner table. Perfect for those who enjoy soul food and would like to try Asian cuisine, but aren’t sure where to start or how to make it a dish they recognize, Smoke and Pickles is familiar and new at the same time. It reminds me of my dinner at Rook in Fountain Square last night. I had the Japanese Fried Chicken with Sweet Chili Sauce, which was served over rice with thinly sliced onions, red peppers, and an array of herbs that included mint and cilantro.
Towards the back of the book you’ll find everything from traditional Southern boiled peanuts to more versions of kimchi and pickled peppers than you can imagine.
Interesting dishes include: Miso-Smothered Chicken, Chicken and Country Ham Pho, and Cornmeal-Fried Oyster Lettuce Wraps.
Duck & Belgian Food and Cooking by Janny de Moor and Suzanne Vandyck
While browsing the library shelves, I found this gem with gorgeous photography and detailed recipes. I picked it up mainly because my friend Emily just moved to Belgium with her family for a three-year stint, and I’ve wanted to know what the heck she’s eating over there.
Mussels and frites are the most familiar Belgian dishes I’ve found in Indianapolis, but there’s so much to this cuisine that Americans just aren’t aware of. There certainly are many recipes for fish and seafood in this book, but each one goes beyond the typical baked and fried varieties that immediately come to my mind. In addition to recipes, there’s a large introduction with explanations on the geography of the area, festivals, historical foods, and what you would find in the typical Dutch and Belgian kitchen.
The American History Cookbook by Mark Zanger
What did our ancestors eat? How were recipes created and written? What prepared foods were available in the 19th century? These questions and more are answered in The American History Cookbook.
It’s no secret that recipes from Colonial America are not exactly recipes but a loose array of directions with no ingredient list, but that’s not all that this book covers. What were our farming techniques? How did we eat off the land in the winter when we had little methods for preserving our harvest? I haven’t read the entire book yet so I cannot answer all of those questions, but any history buff will enjoy learning about our country though food.
Bouchon by Thomas Keller
What more can be said of Thomas Keller? The three star Michelin chef is known around the world for French cooking, and his book Bouchon specifically focuses on bistro cuisine from the Bouchon restaurant in California.
“A bistro is open all d ay long and serves food until late at night, but it is most itself – that is, most distinguished from other kinds of restaurants – during the hours between mealtimes, when you can drop in for a soup, salad, sandwich, or, one of my favorites, quiche.” – Thomas Keller
French cuisine in general mystifies me. I didn’t grow up eating it, I’ve never been to France, and it’s not something I seek out when looking for a place to dine for the evening. Therefore, I shall learn about it! Gosh darn this desire to know everything I can about all cuisines. I couldn’t imagine learning about bistro cuisine from anyone other than Thomas Keller, and Bouchon takes a simplified approach. From his incredibly simple roast chicken to vinaigrettes, Bouchon demystifies French cooking with gorgeous photos in this oversize book. Each recipe has an explanation about why the ingredients were chosen and throughout the book anecdotes from Keller himself are peppered in, explaining how to go to be where he is today and why he loves bistro cuisine so much.
In the beginning of the book, Keller describes the importance of potted foods, ones that are in jars ready to eat at a moments notice, usually spread over fresh bread. These potted foods are like terrines, such as the Smoked and Steamed Salmon Rillettes, and are meant for enjoying with friends. I am definitely going to give these a try as they are relatively absent from American cuisine. And you all know I love a challenge.
Interesting dishes include: Rabbit Rillettes with Prunes, Garlic Sausage with French Green Lentils, and the end of the book’s basic list of stocks, broths, sauces, and techniques.
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee
I saved my favorite for last. If you’ve watched Mind of a Chef on PBS (also on Netflix), you’ve seen Harold McGee. He’s the scientist that explains why food is what it is, and he’s my hero.
This book is a dictionary. Anthology. Encyclopedia. OF SCIENCE. But don’t think it’s boring because it is anything but. On Food and Cooking discusses everything from milk and dairy, meat and vegetables down to the soil they came from. How does a cow make milk? Why do we eat meat? Why do vegetables take various lengths of time to grow? While you can most certainly cook without this information, to me it just makes cooking that more interesting.
The first chapter I flipped to was on meat, of course. In the first few paragraphs, McGee explains the history of human evolution and that we started eating meat when we could not produce enough vegetables on the land due to weather – winter, for instance, or drought, or migration. Meat was our method of survival. While we don’t HAVE to eat meat anymore, many think the pain or suffering of animals is not what we as humans should do, yet McGee describes how deciding not to eat meat discounts how meat was how we survived as humans, and without it, we wouldn’t be here today. Take THAT vegetarians and vegans! (Sorry Mom). Further more, McGee explains how muscle tissue is made, how each cut of meat has different fibers, and why they taste different. It’s FASCINATING.
Of course there are several other chapters for those who don’t cook or eat meat, and for that, I encourage each and every one of you to place a copy of On Food and Cooking near your kitchen. It will answer every “why” question you could ever think of.